Tag Archives: Rules

Thou shalt eat the meat on your plate last.

Jollof rice and chicken
Image from ifood.tv

My mother looked around the room, pausing to watch my siblings eat. Glancing over at me, she asked “Why are you all eating like peasants?” Everyone stopped. My siblings and I darted our eyes around the room until the lot fell to me to ask since it was my house.

“How do you mean?” I speared a pod of green beans with my fork and transferred it to my mouth.

“You’re all eating your meat last, as if it’s a precious thing. Like peasants. Why are you doing that?” I took my time before replying, after all, she must have been joking.

“You taught us to eat like this, remember? You used to beat us if you caught us touching our meat first.” My mother laughed. My siblings flashed worried eyes at me.

“Yes but that was when you were little. Don’t tell me you’re all still doing that now?”

I groaned. Now she tells me. After I had almost caused an international debacle at an oyibo friend’s house.

It was Christmas 2005 and my friend didn’t want me to spend the day alone so she invited me to lunch at her parents’ house. Her parents were lovely and warm and Scottish. Her father carved the moist turkey while her mother dished up the mashed potatoes and vegetables.

“This is lovely, ma’m,” I said shoving forkfuls of the creamy mash into my mouth. I sipped my wine and joined in the conversation. I soon observed that my friend’s mother had stopped talking. She was looking at me, her dual-coloured eyes intense with concentration.

“Is your food alright?” she asked eventually.

“Yes, thank you,” I replied, eating some more carrots and smiling to show how delicious the food was. She smiled and nodded. My host asked questions about Nigeria and we went back to our conversation. I noticed my hostess looking at me again.

“Are you sure everything is fine with your food? Would you like something else?” She asked. I wondered, was she an inexperienced cook? Everything on my plate attested to her expertise. And even if she wasn’t a good cook, I would have chewed my wineglass before I mentioned it.  I ate some more potatoes, drank some more wine and smiled broadly to show just how much I was enjoying myself.

“Is the turkey not to your liking?” My friend asked. She was on my Communications course at Uni and knew that as a Nigerian, we tended to be more direct. She knew I couldn’t hear what exactly her mother was asking me. I felt my face heat up.

“Oh sorry!” I cut into the meat, feeling as if I was going to receive a slap from my mother, and chewed it. “The turkey is really succulent, thank you. I do apologise for that. It’s just where I come from, we eat the meat last. It used to be a luxury item in the old days, see?” There was silence at the dinner table. I could see that they wanted me to continue. “Only hunters and priests could afford to be surrounded by meat all the time. Children were rarely given meat and when they were, they had to eat it last to show they were not greedy and so likely to steal or compromise themselves to get those things. I guess, my mother brought us up the same way even though things have changed since then.”

“How fascinating,” my hostess said. I could see she was more relaxed. “Is it just meat or does it apply to other things?”

“Meat and eggs…”

“It seems to me that this was mostly foods high in protein?” My friend’s father piped up. He was a medical doctor and tried to find a scientific reason behind this. Conversation resumed and I sighed in relief.

I looked down at my plate and thanked God that the turkey was a slice of meat; there were no bones to crunch.

That might have made for a whole other kind of conversation.

Thou shalt hold thine knees together at all times.

About ninety percent* of the rules concerning Igbo girls have to do with men. Specifically, what not to do with men. Or around men. Or for men. In order to be properly married to a man. Of those rules, the earliest concerns sitting.

“Sit like a woman,” my mother always said, hitting whatever part of you was nearest to her.

This meant that on the floor, a girl must always sit with her legs together, outstretched in front of her. That was relatively easy. Sitting in a chair was harder; one had to make sure that one’s knees were tightly pressed together, the resultant under-sag of skirt tucked in between thighs. This was important; holding your knees together when you were in a dress or skirt was simply not enough.

It goes without saying that boys were NOT ALLOWED to see above your knees. If a boy saw your pant, a bad thing was supposed to happen and your mother was supposed to know about it somehow. I didn’t know what this was, but I was afraid of it nonetheless.

Disobeying the sitting rule brought swift and harsh punishment which could come from anyone. Even the boys themselves.

“Hey! You girl, Don’t you know you shouldn’t be sitting like that?” I looked up from my snack, spread out over my thighs. A group of boys stood in front of me, their chequered blue shirts unbuttoned in break-time exertions. Their leader was a boy whose fair skin could only be described as ‘dirty yellow’. Like pus. He was younger than I was. I recognised them as the band of boys that tormented girls in school; pulling hair, throwing stones, spitting…I shivered. I wasn’t nearly old enough for them to be afraid of me at just eight, but I had to try anyway.

“Who are you talking to like that?”

“I am talking to you. Don’t you have home training? Didn’t your mother teach you how to sit?” In my effort to avoid the lunchtime melee, I had snuck a book into school. I was so lost in the book that I didn’t realise that the forbidden under-sag had happened. I was sitting on most of them, but a bit of my pants were on display. A solitary bead of sweat trickled down my back.

“Shut up, osiso. If you don’t get out of here now, I will go and tell Teacher that you people were trying to peep at me,” I bluffed. I saw the boys waver, looking at each other. A few of them at the back shuffled their feet. One of them scratched his head and turned around. “That’s right, go away or I will make sure you get flogged.”

I went too far. Their leader spat into the ground. I watched the dry spittle curl inwards, clothing itself in a layer of sand. “I will tell her that you showed us your pant. Your white pant. White and led.” I felt shame cut through me. The description of my underwear was a mark seared on my soul. Even before they started throwing sand into my thighs, I felt unclean. The sand flew everywhere, into my hair, my snacks, my book. I screamed and it went into my mouth. The boys laughed as they ran away.

I stood up and tried to dust myself down as best I could. The sand cut me like little knives in the softest parts of my body. I rinsed my mouth with water from my water bottle but I could still hear crunching when I spoke and goose pimples popped all over my skin.

“Why didn’t you run when you saw the car?” My mother asked at the end of the school day. She reached around and casually knocked me on the head. “I will flog you when we get home, I can see you are now too big to run.” I hung my head.

Mother was right. Boys had seen and now bad things were happening to me; I could barely walk from the discomfort in between my bum cheeks and I was still going to get a beating when I got home. Life was so unfair.

I always kept my legs closed after that.

* This figure (ninety percent) is a ‘Guess-timate’.